By on May 30, 2009

P. J. O’Rourke takes the decline of the American car personally. And not just because his family has sold Buicks for three generations. In his latest book Driving Like Crazy, O’Rourke sees the very story of our nation written in the crazy, chrome-clad arc of American automobilia. From “the sheer genius that transformed the 1908 Model T into the 1965 Shelby Cobra GT500 in a single human lifetime of speeding tickets” to the industry’s decades-long “sayonara,” O’Rourke reflects on where we’ve been and what we drove to get there. But he also knows that cars are about more important things than mere cultural and political commentary. They’re about fun. Fast fun. Busting axles in Baja fun. Pointing a big, noisy car at the horizon and burying the gas pedal fun. And what’s more American than that?

Driving Like Crazy compiles O’Rourke’s automotive writings, spanning a career well spent at publications like Car and Driver, Automobile, National Lampoon and Rolling Stone, among others. It is only appropriate then, that Like Crazy bounces and jolts across topics like a Jeep on an old logging road. From a National Lampoon treatise on “How To Drive Fast On Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink” to a gonzo Baja road test with the cream of American automotive journalism, from NASCAR to the “Geezer Grand Prix” (California Mille), O’Rourke takes on all things automotive with his trademark razor-sharp wit.

But Driving Like Crazy is not simply a collection of automotive O’Rourkisms past. The author revisits each of his pieces with the benefit of a lifetime of living the American romance with cars. The result is a timely mix of nostalgia and topicality; the excesses of youth tempered with reflections on a life that has witnessed the glorious past and ignominious present of the American automobile.

Indeed, the lamentable state of American enthusiasm for automobiles seems to be the driving force behind this anthology. A nefarious group that O’Rourke identifies as “The Fun Suckers” have latched onto the automobile, turning it into “a public enemy, an outlaw they could persecute without compunction.” From pollution controls to safety features, from speed limits to DUI hysteria, this “Fun Sux Klan” has deprived generations of the essential freedom, fear and fun that O’Rourke most highly prizes in his automotive interactions.

And it’s no wonder O’Rourke takes fun so seriously. His life has been chock-full of the stuff. Before even hitting his stride with boozy explorations of NASCAR, Baja, and, er, Illinois, he was exhorting the readers of National Lampoon to “get drunk and drive like a fool.” Now, twice as old as when he wrote “How To Drive Fast On Drugs,” he follows up on his own advice. A younger PJ suggested that with enough courage and strength of character, a drug-addled, girl-crazed young man could die in a fiery wreck, thus saving him from balding, Country Squire-owning decline. An older O’Rourke questioned his younger self’s ability to acquire the necessary drugs, girls and fast cars to even make a go of it. Plus, “to be young is to be driving in the figure-eight races and demo derbies of life. There’s better fun to be had as you head toward the finish line at Monte Carlo,” he advises.

If you agree with this sentiment, you’ll appreciate the progression of O’Rourke’s work. From youthful incitement to early death through several decidedly gonzo interludes, Driving Like Crazy eventually finds its author discovering more prosaic inspiration. Buying a family car. Defending SUVs from the British. Family road trips in a Ford Flex. Younger readers may see the bleak visions of slow death by Country Squire coming true. Certainly, “the finish line at Monte Carlo” is less glamorous, less obviously fun than you might expect.

But don’t cry for P. J. The old bastard has had his fun. In fact, as Driving Like Crazy progresses, the gonzo levels drop off and are replaced with ever more frequent complaints about fun suckers. But having just read pedal-to-the-metal accounts of booze-soaked junkets, destroyed press cars and general misbehavior (on a healthy expense account), one can’t help but wonder if O’Rourke’s fast living, fast driving ethos hasn’t inspired the very fun suckers he despises.

Though O’Rourke rages against the dying of the light (and now knows which poet he’s referencing), he’s had a front row seat for one of the most epic sunsets in American history. Good thing, then, that he’s such a talented writer. His diatribes may do nothing to bring back the days of rumbling V8s, perpetual drunkenness and small-town girls begging to be whisked away by men on motorcycles, but his vivid recollections bring them to life in the reader’s imagination.

As the age of the American car slips into memory, writers like O’Rourke remind those of us who missed it that the future need not be ever more quiet, safe and appliance-like. At the very least, his writings provide a poignant counterpoint to the neutered, socialized culture and industry currently surrounding cars in America. The presence of which proves that there really are worse things than going out early “in a blaze of flaming aluminum alloys formulated specially for the Porsche factory race effort.”

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be out burning the last of the hydrocarbons as an offering to the few remaining gods of fun. That way, if I don’t die young, some whippersnapper of the future can accuse me of ruining the fun for his and all coming generations. Which, if I’ve learned anything from P. J. O’Rourke, is the only way to know you’ve actually had any.


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31 Comments on “Review: Driving Like Crazy by P. J. O’Rourke...”


  • avatar

    O’Rouke’s pieces for C&D back in the 1980s were a major reason I started subscribing to that magazine.

    I know I’ve read some of his more recent work, but can’t recall if they’ve been as good. Which probably isn’t a good sign.

  • avatar
    lutonmoore

    P. J. O’Rourke’s an all-around great writer and I’ll be buying this book. Here’s a piece he wrote for today’s WSJ:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203771904574173401767415892.html#mod=todays_us_nonsub_weekendjournal

  • avatar
    ajla

    the sheer genius that transformed the 1908 Model T into the 1965 Shelby Cobra GT500 in a single human lifetime of speeding tickets

    I don’t know if that’s a direct quote from the book, maybe it was done on purpose, but:
    There’s a 1965 Shelby Cobra.
    There’s a 1965 Shelby GT350.
    There’s a 1967 Shelby GT500.

    However, there is no such thing as a 1965 Shelby Cobra GT500.

  • avatar
    carguy

    Its comforting to see that the progress of time has only had modest success in tempering the raging beast that is PJ O’Rourke.

  • avatar
    lutonmoore

    Its comforting to see that the progress of time has only had modest success in tempering the raging beast that is PJ O’Rourke.
    He is a piece of work. He’s made a good living writing over the years. Sort of the White, upper middle-class Everyman.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Parliament of Whores was a classic. As true today as it was 20 years ago

    • 0 avatar
      2ronnies1cup

      True. It’s also a better and more readable primer on the structure and function of Government in the U.S. than anything issued to high school students.

  • avatar
    bredy

    I’ve been feeling the loss that P.J. describes, and had a premonition it was coming, while, during the ’90s, I felt so fortunate to be experiencing life thru the windshield of a Caterham 7, before the culture and and my stamina went down the tubes…

  • avatar
    commando1

    P.J. is GOD!!
    Well, maybe not.
    P.J. is Son of God.
    Jean Shepherd was GOD!

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Yep, time for all the heart wrenching funeral stories. You know, of course, that only the good stories get told at most funerals.

  • avatar
    Luther

    PJ is one of my favorites…I will pick this one up…Thanks.

  • avatar
    lutonmoore

    I bought it new from Amazon for 14 bucks, and threw in “Atlas Shrugged” for 11 something. Which seems appropriate for the times. $25 gets the 2-day shipping free.

    Most of his books are just his old columns strung together but I guess this one’s a one shot thing.

  • avatar
    Wingo

    PJ is awesome.

    I had the opportunity to hang out with him for a couple of hours one night (just me and him, honest). Plenty of good memories. He spent a good part of the night trying to convince me to buy a suburban instead of a minivan. I was being mr. practical family man and he’s telling me about some racecar driver that dusted the jags and bmws with a Suburban on some car junket pj went on. He’s truly a car guy. I guess I’m part of the problem since I bought a minivan.

  • avatar

    lutonmoore,

    There’s a huge difference between the situation described in Atlas Shrugged and the one with GM.

    In Atlas Shrugged, the government takes over successful businesses and makes it impossible for talented businesspeople to do what they do best.

    In today’s world, the government is taking over GM and getting heavily involved in the financial sector because “talented” businesspeople so thoroughly f***ed up that the viability of the entire economy was endangered.

    Ayn Rand failed to realize Karl Marx’s key insight: pure capitalism inherently leads to severe economic crises and social instability.

    And now back to PJ…

    Good to hear he’s a talented as ever.

  • avatar
    paulie

    PJ is made for TTAC.

    And this makes me long for the highway.
    Its the only place I feel good.
    I need to get away again.
    Away from a catholic family experiment gone bad, Away from stale urban neighborhood associations.
    Just to be sitting at those strange local eateries along the road with the smells they have all their own.
    Just…just going somewhere.
    And in a great big American Tank…my Lincoln.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I don’t like the man’s politics—despise much of them, actually—but he’s genuinely funny and fairly eloquent. An asshole, sure, but not a stupid one. Not by a longshot.

    There are a lot of very, very low-brow demagogues on both sides of the spectrum. O’Rourke is a high-brow one, something we could use more of.

  • avatar
    ConspicuousLurker

    I’ve never met the man, but he doesn’t strike me as an asshole.

    I always found P.J. to be kind at the core in his writings. Sure, he’ll crap all over the glaring flaws of the locals, but he really brings out the best qualities of the individuals. And he’s a great travel writer.

    In one of his books, he compared my town to the country of Bangladesh (because they both shared the same population density). I can’t speak to the veracity of his description of Bangladesh, but he nailed the pleasant banality of Fremont.

    His article of his experiences on The Nation cruise in the U.S.S.R. cracks me up still. The Parliament of Whores is P.J. at his best.

  • avatar
    lutonmoore

    In today’s world, the government is taking over GM and getting heavily involved in the financial sector because “talented” businesspeople so thoroughly f***ed up that the viability of the entire economy was endangered.

    Thank God the Government’s here to save the day! Between them and the UAW, GM should be a viable corporation soon and turning a handsome profit. Congress will be a big help too.

  • avatar
    broccoli

    Another “those were the days ” book from an aging boomer? The kids street racing GT-R’s or Civic Si’s would probably disagree with the premise that cars can’t be fun anymore. Just not American cars.
    The glaring difference between O’Rourke on the page and his nerdy TV interview personality always had me suspecting that a lot of what he writes as biography is pure fiction. And, hasn’t he become what he disdains? Let’s hear how he feels about youthful anarchy in his upscale neighborhood.
    If he does go out “in a blaze of flaming aluminum alloys formulated specially for the Porsche factory race effort.” that would change my opinion.
    A book about car culture must make a nice diversion from trying to defend rabid free markets know best Libertarianism these days.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I’ve been reading PJs stuff for years.Truly a great writer.I will buying a copy,for sure.

  • avatar

    My personal favorite of P.J.’s is Eat The Rich. He looks at good capitalism and bad capitalism, good socialism and bad socialism (a country needs to be rich to be successfully socialist), countries that succeed with little natural wealth and countries that fail with bountiful resources.

    Woe to our country that a lightweight thinker and not very funny guy like Al Franken is going to be in the US Senate. Wouldn’t P.J. in the Senate be infinitely funnier?

    BTW, O’Rourke is currently fighting what he described as “cancer of the ass”, a treatable form of the disease with a 95% survival rate.

  • avatar
    lutonmoore

    What version of “Atlas Shrugged” did you read? No the government didn’t take over healthy companies in “Atlas Shrugged”, have you actually read the book?

    Thanks for that because I thought the book was a little different than that. Having been in the US Military a large part of my life, and dealing with many gov’t agencies, I can’t imagine anybody would think that they could cure the woes of the Free Market.

  • avatar
    ruckover

    “Ayn Rand predicted this mess perfectly.”

    Huh? I know it is late on a Sunday, but I pray this is meant ironically.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Ayn Rand was completely uninterested in automobiles. In fact, she never even got a driver’s license for goodness sake. Driving was the man’s job in her actual life.

    Atlas Shrugged and O’Rourke’s celebration of permanent adolescence have almost nothing in common.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Atlas Shrugged and O’Rourke’s celebration of permanent adolescence have almost nothing in common.

    Sure they do. They’re affirming (or masturbatory) reads, if you’re of a particular bent. Think “Chicken Soup for the Libertarian Soul.”

    The difference is that O’Rourke is funny.

    Actually, Rand might be funny, too, and perhaps her followers, like Marx’s, haven’t gotten the joke yet.

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    Pravda!? The National Enquirer of Russia? Please.

  • avatar

    Something happened, I think around 1991, that turned this guy from a talented and funny writer to unoriginal, bland and unfunny.

    Since this book seems to span both eras I suggest those interested check out some of his older books. Two in particular I read and are really good: Modern Manners: An Etiquette Guide for Rude People and Republican Party Reptile, both from the mid 1980’s.

    For examples of the new and extremely unfunny stuff, try making it to the end of any of his pedantic attempts at humor that are online at weeklystandard.com

  • avatar

    P.J. O’Rourke on Woe Is My Car Industry! How feminism and Facebook killed the car.

    Be sure to listen to the audio commentary and not read the transcript.

    I want to watch the submarine races. Is that an innuendo for something?

  • avatar
    HeatherF

    blucon: you were on point until the poorly characterized comment – “Funny thing is in the ’30’s a little guy named Hitler came to power based on his belief that capitalism was a failure and National socialism the cure. How history repeats.”
    – I agree with your criticisms, especially regarding the lack of awareness on the part of the citizenry, although most Americans are so busy trying to get by that they do not have time to figure out the truth behind the shit fed to them.

    I even agree that history repeats itself b/c I have a pulse. However, I wouldn’t give Hitler the credit of truly believing what he espoused. The belief that capitalism is a failed system and that national (total) socialism is the cure is a theory of sociologists not fascists, and there is a difference.

    There are so many people, presidents, and governmental agencies (supposedly in charge of oversight) etc. ad nauseum. Obama got handed a pile of shit upon taking his oath of office and nothing he, nor ANY one person in the oval office, can do will remedy the recent results of years of amoral, immoral, and otherwise poor decisions. I hate knowing that the p.o.s.’s at the top are given a Get Out of Prison Free card and believe that a failed business model should not be salvaged by the state, the amount of Americans who would have been without work would have been a catastrophic blow, and it was better to keep these people employed and (idealistically) punish others later than to take a purely capitalist approach to the crisis.
    The automobile crisis primarily occurred because of the banking/lending crisis and though I do not like such government involvement in once non-governmental corporations, it softens the blow. All of this is more weight on the “why I will not pay off my law school loans by becoming a corporate attorney”

    To end on a lighter and more germane (less german) note, I do not believe that the American affinity with the automobile is lost nor significantly diluted permanently. I love the sound of a loud, gas-guzzling muscle car as much as a teenage girl as I do a decade later (though the man who owns it has a higher bar to pass). Public transportation is the way to go, but Americans will still own cars due to our indispensible desire for independence and exploration. AMTRAK will not take you to the wilderness, nor should it. Technology will find a way to make green cars sound loud and sexy, in due time. Afterall, they are already starting to look sexy. I am a staunch believer that driving is a privilege and NOT a right. But if you deserve that privilege, you should wake up the neighbors with your eco-friendly, loud, Shelby. <3


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